Recently, the Florida Supreme Court issued a decision of interest to estate planning attorneys both in Florida and elsewhere. The case is Aldrich v. Basile and it is available by clicking the link. The case is instructive on how not to plan your estate. Ann Aldrich decided to save money and purchase a do-it-yourself form Will from E-Z Legal Forms. Through the use of the form, she left many listed possessions to her sister, Mary Jane Eaton, in what was a specific bequest. If Mary Jane did not survive Ann, everything on the list was to go to her brother, James.
Mary Jane predeceased Ann and left realty and other possessions to Ann. After that time, Ann attempted to prepare a codicil which she called an “addendum” to her Will. The codicil left all her worldly possessions to James. However, the codicil was not executed with the proper formalities. In fact, it was not even signed by Ann. Thus, the court disregarded the codicil and looked to the original form Will. Unfortunately, the original Will did not contain a residuary clause. The court determined that the specific bequests would go to James. However, everything else, including the property inherited from Mary Jane (after Ann prepared her Will), would pass via intestacy. The intestate heirs were James and two of Ann’s nieces from a predeceased brother.
Thus, despite the fact that Ann wanted everything to go to James, a substantial portion of her property ended up going to two nieces from a predeceased brother. Why? There were two errors due to her “self-help.” First, Ann had used a form Will which did not have a residuary clause. Thus, only the specified property was governed by the form Will. Second, Ann did not execute the “addendum,” or codicil, with the formalities required under state law. If Ann had seen a reputable estate planning attorney, her Will would have had a residuary clause and any codicil would have been executed with the proper formalities.
The concurring opinion noted that “this case does remind me of the old adage ‘penny-wise and pound-foolish.’” This case is a tale of caution against self-help and form Wills. It might be useful to have on hand when prospective clients ask why they should not prepare their own estate plan with resources from the internet. Abraham Lincoln famously said “he who represents himself has a fool for a client.” That’s doubly true when the person representing the client does not even have any legal training. Certainly Ann was rather foolish in this case and her “E-Z” Will did not easily accomplish her goals.
Stephen C. Hartnett, J.D., LL.M.
Associate Director of Education
American Academy of Estate Planning Attorneys, Inc.
9444 Balboa Avenue, Suite 300
San Diego, California 92123
Phone: (800) 846-1555